In the independent documentary “Red State: The Movie,” self-described California liberal Michael Shea sets out from his Blue State Venice Beach home to travel across America, stopping mainly in Red States to talk to folks and see what makes them tick.
The resulting 80-minute film captures one man’s attempt to reach out to, and understand, others unlike himself. What Shea finds baffles him.
Shea got the idea for the movie while “distraught” after the 2004 presidential election outcome.
“How could they possibly vote for this man again?” says a shaggy, stubbly Shea on camera of the people who re-elected George W. Bush. “Then I started realizing that was an arrogant position, and I just wanted to go out and talk to some Red State people.”
Shea then enters a hair salon to lose the beard and long hair in order to “go out and meet Republicans.” The 40-year-old filmmaker hops in his car and leaves California for Middle America.
One of the first people Shea talks to on his journey across the United States is Roger from Thermopolis, Wyo., who says he’s a Democrat—but that he hasn’t voted for Democrats lately because they’re too liberal. Shea bumps into a politically divided couple from Houston at Mt. Rushmore and has a weird conversation with Dennis, a religious conservative from Boise.
After Shea’s interviews, we frequently cut to him back in the car, driving on down the road, processing what he just heard. Dennis scared him.
“I didn’t know it would be so difficult to be open-minded,” he says. “There’s just something about born-again Christians that creeps me out.”
But it’s when Shea heads down South that his trip gets most interesting.
Shea meets with the Whittaker and Austin families in Rosebud, Ark., who start off blasting Wal-Mart. Economically, they sound like liberals, Shea later notes, but when talk turns to lifestyles, they’re Red Staters.
In fact, as Shea continues processing the conversation, he says their religion seems to be the only thing that matters to them. He says they really believe they have a lock on an eternal, happy life.
“That sounds nice,” says Shea. “I’d like to have that. But I don’t think I can.”
He gets on a radio show in a small Texas town, fielding questions from callers about Red-Blue differences and asking his own. He stops by a crawfish festival in Louisiana before making his way to Jackson, Miss., and meeting with Gladys Gill, state director of the Concerned Women for America.
Their conversation seems to go well, until she finally presses him to end the interview. When he asks if he offended her, she responds he was roughing her up over gay marriage. He argues, saying he was just trying to discuss gay marriage with her.
“It doesn’t exist,” she says of the concept of gay marriage. “It’s all in your head.” Shea can only chuckle in response, and we cut to the next conversation.
“Red State” is probably a bit too long, consisting as it does mainly of Shea interviewing and gently arguing with others on Big Issues. Interspersed are some beautiful shots of various American landscapes, which do remind us of our country’s vastness.
“I’m having the same argument over and over and over again,” he says en route to another interview, noting the biggest difference between Red and Blue States is the role of religion in the Red States. That’s backed up when he attends Justice Sunday at Louisville’s Highview Baptist Church, where some of the nation’s conservative-religious bigwigs are holding a televised rally about the country’s direction.
“I can’t reconcile what I think is morally right with what they do,” Shea says of their apparent need for a government based on their interpretation of the Bible. They really seem to think, he concludes, that if the Ten Commandments were the rule of law, everyone would be happier.
“There are a lot of people in America who want America to be governed by the Bible. That’s what I’m coming to understand,” he says. “And you know what? They need to be stopped.”
Shea wraps up the production with a voice-over saying both of his reactions to Red Staters are true: He does arrive at a new respect for them while fundamentally disagreeing with their perspective on religion and government.
One of the best moments in this personal documentary is Shea’s conversation with the families in Rosebud. One of the family members says to Shea, “Can I ask you a question?” Shea simply responds, “Sure,” his gestures opening and his genuine desire for simple, honest conversation coming through.
That’s what drove his trip and this project. Nothing is glammed up, neither point of views nor people. It’s just conversation—and one man trying to understand what drives so many of his fellow Americans.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s note: Nothing offensive.
Director: Michael Shea
Writer: Michael Shea
Cast: Michael Shea
The movie’s official Web site is here.
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